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Criticwire Survey: The Video Store That Changed My Life

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by Sam Adams
November 11, 2013 2:46 PM
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Rian Johnson

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: With Blockbuster Video closing its remaining stores in January, the video-store era is drawing to a close, but for most critics they were an essential part of learning to love movies. What was the video store that changed your life?

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

I grew up in a small town, so we didn't have Blockbusters or big chain rental stores. My most important video store wasn't really even a video store per se. It was a place called Felker's Tile & Carpet, and like the name implies, it was a tile and carpet store. The Felkers were big movie fans, so they began renting videotapes, presumably to supplement their main business. Over the years, their selection became surprisingly large, with movies taking up nearly as much space as everything else. In the summer, I would go there daily to rent tapes. Because their selection was extensive, and because hot titles were often rented out, I became adventurous, trying films I'd never heard of, or, at my adolescent age, wouldn't normally have considered. One of those titles was a 1985 John Malkovich picture called Eleni. That was the first "arthouse" film I'd ever seen, and it made me want to see more. In retrospect, taking a chance on movies outside the norm doubtlessly played a major part in my growth as someone who appreciates cinema. By the '90s, a West Coast Video had opened locally. It seemed cooler, and the selection was even greater, so I started going there. But you know what? That was just a place I went; Felkers, on the other hand, was a place where I developed. 

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Pop Matters

Where but Brockport Video Theater could a cadre of high-schoolers in upstate New York rent a VCR and a fistful of strange, exotic (oft gory and idiotic) VHS tapes for an all-night video binge in the basement of someone's parents' house? Amidst the ridiculous (Blood Feast), heavy (Apocalypse Now, on two VHS tapes), peculiar (The Man Who Fell to Earth) and sublime (Repo Man), there were also fascinating and obscure music-based films (Rude Boy, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains), and all sorts of other things to leave us in confused wonder. Part of the beauty of these showcases were precisely how little we knew or understood about the films we were selecting. We based many of our picks on the box-art (gorgeous women and the possibility of gore and/or nudity, it must be said, were high on our list) and little else, which lead to many horrific movies but also a shocking number of really striking things we would have had no idea about otherwise. If it hasn't yet, I'm sure this process can eventually be replicated by some cosmic, coded algorithm being developed by Netflix or Amazon, but that complete, uncluttered freedom the video store represented will be lost to the ages, along, I suspect, with much of the joy of random cinematic discovery.

A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club

This one is easy. In my hometown of Lansing, Michigan, there existed -- and still exists, last I checked -- a place called Video to Go. Growing up, it was my movie Mecca. Though we lived closer to Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, both of my parents preferred Video to Go, probably because it offered, for several years anyway, a 5-rentals-for-$5 deal. It was through this unbeatable special that I was able to gorge myself on movies -- first, as a preadolescent, when I'd tear through every unseen title in the horror section, and later, as a teenager, when I'd begin exploring the annals of world cinema. VTG didn't just possess the biggest selection in town; it was basically the only local source for foreign films, which also made it a better educational institute than either of the colleges I'd eventually attend. Naturally, of course, I ended up working there eventually, as an undergrad at Michigan State University. Besides the unlimited access to product, the job also put me in contact with a group of older cinephile co-workers, whose tastes and attitudes played a pretty big part in shaping my sensibilities as a movie lover. I still think back fondly on that job and on Video to Go in general. Can streaming sites serve the same function for a younger generation as VTG did for me? Maybe, though I'd like to see them try to replicate the educational value of a slow Tuesday morning, when video store employees have nothing to do but sit around and talk about movies.

Adam Batt, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

I'm not sure how well travelled the very peculiar practice on which I am about to muse was. In the 1980s in the UK, men across the land traversed the streets of suburban Yorkshire in a van from which multiple cinematic delights could be found. Rather than having to traipse out to an actual store one would simply have to saunter out in to the street on a Friday evening, where for as little as 50 pence per night one could indulge in any manner of film. It was a bit like the original Netflix.The bonuses of enterprising lone traders were wide and varied. Ours hardly ever followed the law of certification, which was somewhat notoriously bad in the UK during this period, meaning that my brother and I got to see all manner of film years before society deemed it proper for us to do so. The Video Van Man, as is the official job title of the chap in question, also bore other fruits, selling all manner of all kinds of items, much of it contraband. 

On a serious note, my appreciation of film really came of age alongside the rise of the DVD, so I can vouch for the importance of such things, especially to those of us that grew up away from well-catered for cultural hotspots. While the possibilities afforded by streaming are exciting, the murky world of intellectual properties and licensing looks set to be a minefield of restriction for some films that have had a difficult enough time making their way to DVD and Blu-ray as it is. We live in a world where permissions can be revoked with the click of a button, which raises all sorts of questions about works which will in the future face licensing transitions (see a lot of early Criterion releases). Ultimately my concern for future cinephiles is that a wealth of great movies will wind up being trapped in some kind of release limbo, with boutique distributors like Criterion or Masters of Cinema afraid to go out on a limb to obtain the rights for titles knowing that they're going to be edged out of the equation at some point further down the line.

Devin Faraci, Badass Digest

There were two video stores that were formative for me. The first was on my corner and they gave me one of my first jobs. I handed out flyers for them -- or I was supposed to. I actually threw all the flyers in the sewer and went home to watch TV and then returned to the store a few hours later to get paid. This influenced my work ethic forever. That store also allowed me to rent porn when I was 14. But the truly influential video store for me was one called Video Van. They had a physical location, but their schtick was that you would call them and they would drive their video-filled van to your house and you would pick something. Video Van had an extraordinary assortment of grungy horror and exploitation films in that van, probably because they knew people would feel more comfortable renting weird, sick stuff in private than at the store. My entire aesthetic was shaped by renting grindhouse movies from the back of that van in Queens.

Mary Pols, Time

The most important video store in my life is still thriving. It's called Bart & Greg's DVD Explosion! and it's in Brunswick, Maine. There are five people who work there who I know by name and who know me and know my dog and know my kid and know my taste and give me cheerful shit about stuff like the nice things I am quoted as saying about The Guilt Trip (it was charming and don't try to tell me otherwise, not even if you're Seth Rogen). And I'm nothing special -- they seem to know all of their customers on this level. Going there is fun even when I have late fees. They are knowledgeable, the inventory is great (they have never disappointed me and I look for some fairly obscure things) and the place is a social hub for our town. Also, they have a ridiculous number of ways to save money, spin-the-wheel specials, package deals, longer rental period for professor types teaching with a film and so on. When I moved back to Maine three years ago, I gave up the Netflix. I'd way rather go down the street and see a smart, kind funny human being who understands why I need that Homeland disc right this second.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com, Tor.com

The local video store when I was a kid was Valdez Video (later Luis Video), and it was awesome because it was, almost literally, a third kung fu movies, a third Mexploitation (less absurdly random than you'd think in what's now South Park Slope in Brooklyn, but still kind of funny considering that there were always like' 80 movies called things like Chinga Mi Esposa, Por Favor right by the counter), and a third "drama/comedy." The only other sections I remember were "Kids," because that's where they kept the Danger Mouse tapes, and "War." In spite of the disproportionate and idiosyncratic genre divisions, I never remember not finding what I was looking for, probably because I'd just grab something else with cool cover art. My dad never did let me rent any of the Mexploitation movies, I think because he was afraid the esposas actually got chinga'd, no matter how hard I tried to convince him it would help me learn Spanish: "I can talk in an English accent now because of Danger Mouse!" Nope, no luck. Anyway, eventually Luis moved to a bigger location and just wasn't the same without all the bootleg probably-porno movies, and by that point I was old enough to take the subway into the city to go to Kim's, i.e. Mecca. Talking about Kim's would take a book, or at the very least more room than I have here. Still, you never forget your first, and I'll never forget Chinga Mi Esposa, Por Favor, if that was what it was called, and not my memory filling in a blank. There was a guy flipping the middle finger at someone on the cover, I know that much.

Mike D'Angelo, Las Vegas Weekly, The Dissolve

By a freak of timing, my main source of nostalgia is more specific than a video store: a laserdisc store. In 1991-92, right before I headed off to attend NYU, I worked at a place called Laserland in San Jose, CA, which exclusively dealt in what was then thought to be the future of home video; in retrospect, it's as if I worked at a record store that sold only 8-track cassettes. In any case, that's where I first encountered the Criterion collection, educating customers on the difference between CAV and CLV (trust me, you don't want to know), and it's where I first started assembling a personal video library, purchasing films that I'd later rebuy on DVD and am now rebuying again on Blu-ray (one of these days I'll learn). We also sold laserdisc players, and had a home-theater demo area in the back; my boss invariably used the Terminator 2 disc to blow people away.

My most vivid memory is the guy who would come in every Tuesday and buy literally -- literally -- every single title that was released that week. Which was not an inexpensive hobby, as laserdiscs were much pricier than DVDs -- Criterion editions of a single film could run $50-100. (I remember paying $100 for The War of the Roses!) I sometimes wonder what happened to his collection. In terms of discovering obscurities and general ambience, Kim's Video was unbeatable. But I expect other folks will have them covered. If not, there's always Karina Longworth's terrific story on where their inventory wound up.

Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running, Cinephiled

My personal relationship with video stores has been... peculiar, largely because I've almost never had a genuine obligation to join one. In the early '80s, I was cronies with consumer electronics journalists; later, I became one myself, when I joined the staff of Video Review in the 1986. I was indifferent to VHS by 1987, championing laser discs. (My mom ran a video store herself in Washington, New Jersey around this time, and one of her customers was Keith Jarrett; I wound up lending him a laser disc of Vadim's Dangerous Liaisons '60 by proxy -- he was interested in it because Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were featured prominently in at least one of its party sequences.) The first thing I did at Premiere, in summer of 1996, was a big package on this newfangled DVD technology. Eventually I got to run that magazine's Home Guide. I asked Aaron Hillis to start making contributions to the magazine in part because of the really clever and funny description cards he made for new titles at the Carroll Gardens video store he worked at when I first met him a few years after I was in the neighborhood, a now-defunct joint called Hole in the Wall Video, owned by a guy who still lives across the street from me. But I hadn't met him at the store, but at our "local." (This led to a lot of over-confident freelance queries beginning with "So I hear you hired a guy you met in a bar.") Mondo Kim's, of course, was where I shopped for foreign-region stuff, and it was a great hangout in a way, and I still haunt the First Avenue Kim's for stuff I don't get for promotional consideration. But I get a lot of stuff for promotional consideration. Not that I'm bragging: Years of begging went into it. When I started my book on Robert De Niro I feared I'd have to go the rental route to research some of the actor's more obscure titles, or movies I missed the first time around. But Amazon Instant Video turned out to be more than capable of handling my research concerns. So that was that. I can't say I'll miss Blockbuster because I didn't like them at all in the first place. Their early practices poisoned the well for collectors to a certain extent, which didn't help my view of them.

Robert Greene, Sight & Sound, Hammer to Nail

After I left college and my managerial position at North American Video in Raleigh, NC and moved to NYC, I tried to get a job at the old Two Boots video store and never got a call back. Then I walked into the greatest video store on planet Earth, the St. Mark's Kim's Video, told the guy in charge (Sean Price Williams) that I didn't have much time to be interviewed because I had to make a Jean Eustache screening, and was hired on the spot. So my favorite video store was my store. I worked at Kim's from 2000 to 2004 or something like that and was the one responsible for the War on Terror action shelf, sticking the Jackass movies in the documentaries and making sure Edvard Munch was always always always in the employees picks section. I met so many friends, future filmmakers, collaborators and inspirations. I gave The Mother and the Whore to Liv Tyler. I made $6 an hour cash under the table and had Sunday mornings to myself. I came to believe that we rented bootlegged movies like Satantango because we were important to people and that cinema culture was being incubated amongst our meticulously organized-by-director wire shelves. I would talk for hours with people about movies (or more commonly watch Sean talk to any one of his many visitors), learning and sharing and arguing and growing. I wouldn't be anywhere without Kim's and employees and customers like Sean, Alex Ross Perry, Ronnie Bronstein, Jessica Oreck, Josh and Benny Safdie, Eric Hynes and many others agree. To this day I still don't have a Netflix account because I believe the death of video store culture was a body blow to cinema. (Though I gotta shout out that nice girl out there that lets me use her login. You rule.)

Kate Aurthur, BuzzFeed

I have so many important video store memories -- like when a clerk at Kim's Video in the West Village of New York City told me I couldn't find Crimson Tide in any of the obvious categories (Denzel Washington, Tony Scott, etc.) because it was "in the Hans Zimmer section." (He didn't actually call me an idiot for not knowing; I heard him loud and clear, though.) But the most important store to me has to be my childhood one: the Video Room on 84th and 3rd in Manhattan. It was the closest one to my house -- and was nine blocks away! I trudged there constantly when we first got a VCR in the early '80s, at first renting movies I had seen and loved (like teenagers do), and then venturing into movies I knew I should see (Hitchcock, film noir, A Clockwork Orange). I don't remember a single meaningful discussion with a clerk, but the store was well-organized and well-stacked. Any video store at that time would have changed my life, but for me it was the Video Room. RIP.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

Growing up in Seattle, I was lucky enough to find more than my fair share of options for watching cinema of all stripes. But no single rep house could possibly encompass the scope of film history the way that Scarecrow Video did (and, for now, still does). Choose your hyperbolic metaphor or invent your own: This store is like a temple, Kim's Video on crack, movie heaven. Scarecrow deserves all the praise it can get. Two floors, organized by director, genre, sensibilities--- you could lose yourself for hours and leave with a handful of titles that felt as though they'd been gifted by the gods. I have yet to experience that Pollyanish glee while sifting through my Netflix queue. While the streaming age has made more movies available than ever before, and god bless the aggregators helping to make that possible, it has also downgraded the value of curation to cleanly defined categories that aren't necessarily reliable (what the hell does a recommendation algorithm know about New French Extremity or subversive blockbusters?). Scarecrow had a section for virtually every sensibility and managed to invent a few of its own. It didn't just accommodate existing curiosities about cinema; it actively advocated for their continuation. I use the past tense because I mainly took advantage of this resource in the past, but I hope that Scarecrow's future is rich and as impactful on young cinephiles exploring their options as it was on this one. Oh, and they published a book.

Sean Axmaker, Cinephiled, Parallax View

I clerked for, bought for, and managed video stores for almost 12 years, beginning in the video store boom of the mid-eighties and ending just as DVD overtook VHS in the late-nineties. It's a culture that I watched grow and flourish, just another part of the weekly routine. While a lot of recent articles reflecting on the whole video store culture seem to focus on the negatives of the experience (late fees, long lines, and how many times do I have to hear about "surly clerks"?), I recall how stores, in particular independently-owned neighborhood stores, developed strong relationships between clerks and customers, especially when they could find someone with similar tastes and interesting recommendations. Metrics and logarithms don't replace the conversations that lead to new discoveries and make loyal customers, they merely offer a pale substitute. 

My first store, Flicks and Pics in Eugene, closed down in 2007 (their collection went to the public library), but the most important video store in my life was and still is Scarecrow Video in Seattle, the greatest video store in the known universe. I worked there as a manager for three years (one of many managers, I might add; it took a lot of work to manage that collection and the customers that once flocked to it) but I was digging into its library long before I started working there. They imported Hong Kong action movies on laserdisc and European rarities on VHS PAL from Britain (they rented PAL players as well) before they become available stateside. After I started working there, I saw the original Ringu on a Japanese VCD (the pre-DVD format!) and Edward Yang's first movies from laserdisc import. And, of course, I had access to almost every domestic release of interest on VHS and laserdisc. DVD was just getting started when I stopped working there, but my account has remained active. I continue to turn to Scarecrow whenever I need a film for research. I pray it survives because it is facing hard times and possible closure.

And that is the real loss: a curated rental library. Scarecrow Video has more than a dozen times the amount of options that Netflix or Amazon Instant does, and they only disappear if the disc is damaged and out of print. But even smaller neighborhood stores offer much more variety and a personal response to customer interests than monolithic streaming sites. What happens if you suddenly get on a Fritz Lang kick, or a fascination with Hammer horror films, or pre-code movies, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals? Even Hitchcock movies! Libraries may cover some of that, but losing video stores will make film culture much poorer.

Matt Prigge, Metro

I spent most of my adult life in Philadelphia, so the answer is obviously TLA Video. The chain, which suffered a slow death over the last several years, blew my mind when I emigrated from South Central Pennsylvania suburbs to the big, evil city. I still remember the glee at first of seeing an entire row of Kurosawa films, plus Kubrick's The Killing, which I had only before then read about. (Also a shout-out to Beaux Arts Video, which was tiny but had some rarities that were too rare for TLA.) But honestly I would be lying if I didn't say Blockbuster didn't mean a lot to me as a film-hungry teen. I exhausted their limited supply of "edgy" fare in high school, traveling to relatively far-off chains to see if they carried Woody Allen's Love and Death, Bergman's Passion of Anna or Peter Greenaway's Drowning by Numbers. Like many, I (or my parents, anyway) ditched the mom and pop stores and even the more local chains for this corporate behemoth, and on one level I'm happy to see them go. Especially because when I applied there early in college they didn't hire me. (Ditto TLA.) But memories, many of them warm, remain, even if I had to buy The Last Temptation of Christ to see it.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

You never forget your first video store. Mine was New Video, on University Place in Greenwich Village; I used to run into Griffin Dunne and other movie geeks there. While it was my first, it was not the most important. That would be TLA Video in Philadelphia, especially its South Street and its Chestnut Hill branches. They carried obscure titles that New Video would bother with. In the late 1980s, my pal Steve Harvey, a curator in MoMA's Film Department, was stunned to find all these 1950s Italian comedies at TLA while he was working on a program of midcentury Italian comedy. He didn't have to preview by having prints sent from Italy. After that, various MoMA curators would call me to see if TLA had an obscure title they needed. More often than not, TLA did. And their video clerks were as knowledgeable as clerk/auteurs Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. They also had an extensive pornography section, separated from the main part of the store by a beaded curtain that resembled something a Warner Brothers' brothel. Naturally my six-year-old daughter, wanting to play with the pretty red beads, walked in that section. She quickly came out, red-faced. "Do naked men really look like that?" she whispered.

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

Living in Philadelphia, I was spoiled by TLA Video, which specialized in alternative, foreign and indie films. I could (and did) spend hours perusing the shelves for hidden gems, getting quite an education in cinema with every rental. Because of TLA, I was able to watch films like Warhol's Flesh, Heat, Trash trilogy that would only show in retrospectives. TLA also enabled me to catch the work of indie filmmakers like Todd Verow whose special brand of cinema was a staple on the shelves. When film friends visited Philly, I always took them to TLA and they just marveled at all of hard-to-find films. It was a sad day when TLA closed its stores, but I won't mourn for Blockbuster. I never rented from one. 

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1 Comment

  • Coleman | November 13, 2013 2:23 AMReply

    Pleasant street video formerly of Northampton MA was the greatest video store I've ever been to. Sadly closed in 2011.

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